Friendship has always been an essential part of my life. I’ve nurtured my friendships over the years and consider them the treasures of my life. More and more research is proving that having friends is good for our health and can actually boost our immune system. But as we age, making time for friends can get interrupted by other more pressing priorities — aging parents, young grandchildren, and ill spouses.
I had to put my friendships on the back burner this year when I became a full-time caregiver for my husband. Sadly, one month ago my beloved husband of 50 years passed away. Sonny’s death was not unexpected but the shock and finality of that moment when he took his last breath still feels surreal.
Over the past year, especially these last four months, I shifted all of my energy – both mental and physical – to a laser focus hoping I could help him get stronger. I devoted every ounce of my being to taking care of his needs.
But COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a brutal illness and nothing I did could relieve his constant shortness of breath. We both knew that our time together was finite and we talked openly about how hard it was for each of us to see the other suffering. I told him I didn’t want to live without him.
“You will be fine” he told me. “You love life too much to sit around mourning!”
He also assured me that my friends would gather round me and comfort me.
I questioned his wisdom. I couldn’t imagine myself being fine without him after 50 years. He was the love of my life, my confidante, my cheerleader, my best friend. I loved spending time with him. He was a wonderful listener and sounding board for all of my thoughts and ideas. I also wondered whether my friends would be there for me when I had not been able to be there for them for a while.
There were many times during the past three months when I would try to imagine how life would be without him. But as Joan Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”
She is so right — just like any experience, you can never truly understand how it feels until you’ve actually lived it yourself. Sometimes grief can be paralyzing yet there is also room to enjoy life — sharing memories and laughter with friends is one of those gifts. Now that I’ve lived a month without Sonny, I wish I could tell him, “You were right, Sonny! I am finding joy in life.”
I’m deeply touched by the kindness my friends have shown. They’re showering me with love and attention and helping me fill the vast amount of free time I have. I’m able to put my attention and energy into rekindling friendships. I’m making plans to walk, hike, have coffee, dinner, or see a movie with friends — pleasures I haven’t had for a long time. I can actually feel my oxytocin levels (known as the “love hormone” that’s associated with empathy, trust and relationship-building) rise after I’ve spent an hour talking with a friend — especially those who ask me how I’m doing and let me share stories and memories of Sonny.
Making new connections
It can be difficult to make new friends as we age. When it comes to building a social circle, experts suggest finding people who are supportive and share your interests. Here are some good ways to meet new people:
- Volunteer. Pitching in to help others isn’t just good for your community – it’s also a chance to get out of the house and enjoy face-to-face interaction.
- Take a class. Whether you’ve always wanted to learn how to speak Italian or improve your piano playing skills, a class can give your brain a workout and introduce you to potential study buddies.
- Join a gym. Some health care plans include a no-cost membership to a participating gym or fitness location. Check your plan to see if you’re eligible.
- Get involved with your faith community. If you’re religious, check out events happening at your local place of worship. Many offer social gatherings designed specifically for seniors.
- Tap into social media. Sites like Facebook can help you find and reconnect with old friends.
- Get a part-time job. Besides keeping your skills sharp, a gig can provide you with an important social outlet.